Mosque debate: Behind America's anxiety over Islam
Controversy over the New York and other mosques underlines the struggle to balance values of religious tolerance with fears, real and imagined, in an age of terrorism.
(Page 2 of 4)
Families still publicly grieve the loss of their loved ones. Incidents like the Fort Hood, Texas, shooting and the thwarted Times Square bombing in New York City reinforce fears of home-grown terrorism. "The symbolism is so fraught with meaning," says Douglas Hicks, a religious scholar at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies in Virginia. "There is no more symbolically loaded space in America today than ground zero. Then you mix in religion, and the 'T' word – terrorism – and you get this explosive, unholy mix."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
From the start of the controversy this May, the symbolism of a "mosque" invading a "sacred" American space has dominated the visceral reactions of many opponents. Critics call the proposed center a "slap in the face" and a "monument to terrorism" and an act of "arrogance and insensitivity." Indeed, the debate has centered on what President Obama called the "wisdom" of building such a center so close to what people feel is sacred ground. Build it, but not here, has been a common refrain.
As Charles Smith, a drywall hanger and painter from Queens who attended the recent protests against the Muslim center, puts it: "I keep hearing, yes, they have a constitutional right, they have a right to build it there. But they don't have to be offensive. If it's offending 70 percent of people in the United States, say, 'No, it's offensive to them, so we'll go somewhere else.' "
Still, the controversy has kicked up sentiment that runs much deeper than the appropriate location of a mosque. Rightly or wrongly, more and more people have been willing to equate Islam itself with an oppressive, terrorist ideology, incompatible with American norms and laws. While the visible presence of Islam so close to ground zero has fomented the most anger, ricocheting from Manhattan to the megaphone of the Internet to the midterm elections, other proposed mosques – near far less hallowed ground – have also encountered sometimes violent opposition in townships from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California.
A recent Gallup poll found that 43 percent of Americans admitted to feeling at least "a little" prejudice against Muslims, and the Pew Research Center has reported that 35 percent feel Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other faiths. Even so, Pew also found the estimated 2.4 million Muslims living in America to be solidly middle class and mainstream, with incomes and education levels mirroring the general public – unlike their more prevalent working-class counterparts in Western Europe. This is one reason, observers say, there are very few radical mosques in the US.